William Cooley exhibition

From an environmental perspective, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident was unprecedented in human history. An estimated 8,000 people died in the explosion’s immediate aftermath, and soil and ground water within a thirty kilometer radius of the city were severely contaminated with radioactive particles, some of which will not decay for millions of years. In August 1994, Ukrainian-Canadian artist William Cooley visited the government-imposed “alienation zone” that surrounds Chernobyl. While there, he was exposed to moderate levels of radiation. Upon his return to Canada, he began drawing blood from his body at regular intervals, which he subsequently stored in his freezer, then used as an artistic medium in this provocative installation.

Cradle’s (1995) central component is a nickel-plated bathtub suspended from the gallery ceiling by four heavy anchor chains. Inside the hermetically-sealed tub is a five liter sample of Cooley’s blood. The sample approximates the amount of blood in the human cardiovascular system. As a signifier, blood is commonly associated with injury and death, although it also has currency as a life-giving substance (a mother’s umbilical connection with her fetus, for example). More recently, this latter association has been ominously subverted by blood’s emergence as an agent of transmission for life-threatening diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. Here, Cooley’s blood serves as an index of the radioactivity that continues to render uninhabitable a portion of his former Ukrainian homeland. Its placement in a cast iron bathtub recalls the concrete “sarcophagus” that Soviet authorities hurriedly built over the decimated Chernobyl reactor to control the spread of radiation.

While the circumstances surrounding Cradle’s execution invite environmental interpretations, Cooley resists viewing his installation as a cautionary warning against nuclear power. “Cradle reflects my interest in the process of mutation,” says Polatiko, “and the parallels that may be drawn between biological transformation and changes in the realm of politics or culture. In the case of Chernobyl, uncontrolled radiation impacted on the human genetic code. But it also served as a catalyst for the Soviet Union’s collapse.” Instead, he is interested in exploring the significance of radiation as a transforming agent in human society.

As a major cause of genetic mutation, solar and other forms of cosmic radiation have been a driving force in the evolution of life on this planet. Admittedly, the vast majority of these mutations were lethal to host organisms. But select mutations did lead to genetic improvements within plant and animal species. In identifying radiation as an agent of ideological transformation as well, Cooley resorts to a second biological analogy. Radiation is the “ultimate virus”: “It is undetectable by the human senses. No life form is immune to radiation. Even death is not capable of stopping it as it survives by infiltrating the genetic code. In this sense, I see radiation as a viral agent of collective memory.”

Mounted on the gallery wall are six oval “paintings.” In fashioning these works, Cooley applied wallpaper to sheets of drywall, then smashed a circular hole with his fist, which he proceeded to repair using plaster and paint. The resulting trompe l’oeil effect serves as a metaphor for the type of Orwellian historical revisionism or erasure practiced by totalitarian regimes such as the former Soviet Union. Indeed, when the Chernobyl reactor exploded, the Soviet government intially denied there was a problem. But as radioactivity spread throughout northern Europe it was forced to disclose previously restricted information. For Ukrainian citizens such as Cooley, who were immersed in a surreal visual/textual/linguistic environment created by the colonizing force of Soviet propaganda, this duplicity in the supposed age of glasnost destroyed the Soviet government’s last shred of credibility and legitimacy.

By selecting white wallpaper with a multi-coloured “check” pattern, Cooley alludes to Suprematism, a non-objective art movement founded by his fellow countryman Kasimir Malevich during the intellectual ferment that accompanied the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. With its emphasis on the symbolic use of line, colour and form, Suprematism sought to authenticate painterly space by dispensing with the illusion of perspectival realism. By celebrating the aesthetic purity of such geometric shapes as the triangle, square and circle, Suprematism also sought to capture the idealistic spirit of what Malevich believed was an emerging Socialist Utopia. But as history records, his dream was brutally crushed by the oppressive force of Stalinism.

In addition to the formal references to Suprematism, Cradle is rife with allusions to the seductive power of illusion. These include the mirror-like shape of the six paintings – what is a mirror, after all, but a mechanism for creating a two-dimensional image of reality – the implied artifice of wallpaper as a decorative medium and the highly reflective nickel-plating on the bathtub. The last allusion is particularly interesting. As viewers stand over the tub, they can study their reflection in its flawless surface. If they wish, they may open a valve-like peephole to view the contents within. When they do, their facial reflection is displaced by a shadowy tunnel which affords them a glimpse of Cooley’s blood, its opaque and ruddy richness accentuated by the glare of gallery lights. As they contemplate this eerie sight, the vaguely disturbing aroma of clotting and decaying blood mixed with anticoagulants begins to permeate the gallery.

By offering viewers a graphic look at life’s most precious fluid, Cooley comments not only on modern humanity’s alienation from the body’s physical reality, but also on our disavowal of our atavistic past. Human history is replete with violent socio-political and religious rituals, from blood sacrifices to visceral divination (a shamanistic practice where the liver and other vital organs of sacred animals were examined for prophetic purposes) to bloodletting by medieval doctors. Even the Christian rite of Communion contains a symbolic reference to the consumption of blood. By denying our pagan past, Cooley seems to suggest, we run the risk of committing our own act of historical revisionism, whereby biological instincts that once sustained us are suppressed in favour of culturally-determined patterns of behaviour. Cradle seeks to dig beneath this veneer of civilized enlightnment to explore a host of primordial impulses that lay buried in humanity’s collective unconscious.

Artists who incorporate bodily fluids such as blood, urine or semen into their work generally do so at their peril. The line between theatricality and sensationalism is fine, and artists who step over this line are usually dismissed as publicity hounds. In incorporating his own blood into Cradle, Cooley adopted a deliberately understated installation strategy. He did not splash it on the gallery walls in imitation of a grisly murder scene, neither did he allow it to pool on the floor. Rather, he placed his blood inside a sealed cast iron bathtub. Out of sight, but not out of mind, just as it is was when it flowed through his veins. In this sense, the tub functions as a metaphor for the human body. Granted, Cooley’s austere container is considerably stronger and heavier than the flesh and bones that serve as our structural framework. But balanced delicately on its four chain-link supports so that even the slightest touch or vibration caused it to sway gently in the spot-lit gallery, the nickel-plated tub and its companion paintings offered a compelling mediation on the fragile preciousness of human life.